Friday, October 10, 2008

A Year in Elisha Cooper's Life

I'm a bit obsessed with documentaries. When a new red Netflix envelope arrives in the mail, my husband will ask, "Which documentary is it this time? Please tell me it's in English." Really, he's a good sport and I have watched an awful lot of action flicks over the years for him. My recent newest favorite? "King of King: A Fistful of Quarters" So, so awesome. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wish that you could strangle the big cheater face that undermines the hero.

Elisha Cooper, who is actually best known as a children's book author and illustrator, wrote a couple of books that take on that documentary-feel. His first book was Crawling: A Father's First Year and the second is ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: a year in an american high school and I much preferred the second. Now, if I had to examine a time of my own life, high school would not be preferred over the first year of my first child's life. I've never gone to a high school reunion and never will and much of that time I've repressed. It wasn't really that bad, I mean, it wasn't junior high. That's a black hole that has disappeared from my consciousness altogether. But it was high school. Yick. My first year as a mother was much more joyful and I have much better memories and more tender feelings about that time. There was a whole lot less crying during that time than there was in high school, that's for sure.

I think the difference in how I liked these books was how the stories were told. In Crawling, Cooper is narrating his experiences as a father, his bewilderment, frustrations, joys, and general overwhelming love for his baby girl. In ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool he is an observer, with no comments or opinions on his part. I found that in Crawling, I didn't really care what he thought. Sure, parenthood is hard, babies are cute, they spit up a lot and all their milestones are amazing, but I didn't really emotionally invest in his experience. Maybe I couldn't relate to him? Maybe I didn't really like his voice? I can't pinpoint it. Maybe it's because parenthood is my own well-traveled and documented experience over these last eight years and nothing he had to say was new or interesting to me. I'm not sure.

Even though I'd much rather not remember most of high school, I loved Cooper's high school that he observed over the course of a year. He also did sketches of the kids that were so simple and yet very descriptive. Maybe if there had been more sketches in Crawling... Who knows, moving on. Cooper followed and interviewed several students whose ambitions, quirks, goals and problems were all vastly different and all relatable to some extent. Daniel, the class president who is trying to get into Harvard and someday wants to go into politics. Emily, captain of the soccer team, perfectionist, and a much deeper thinker than those around her. Maya, the actress who has a lot of tics and fidgety habits that disappear when she's on stage. Diana, the swimmer and good student who is the first of her family to do well in school or even think about college. Aisha, the loner, has lived all over the world and this is the first time she's ever been the only Muslim in her school. Zef, the musician and caffeine addict who can't seem to show up on time for anything and finds school to be a far second to his art. Anais, the beautiful and talented dancer can't seem to see the point to school when all she wants to do is join a ballet company and get going with her life. Anthony, the drug dealer who has zero ambition even with dealing and knows something has to change in his life.

We've all known or been these kids and while I read this book, I desperately wanted each of them to figure out their messes and make good in their lives. I was emotionally invested in these kids. Cooper so beautifully depicts their body language and voices that I felt like I knew each of them. I loved that they were real kids and not some fictional construction. It made me realize that this will be my own children a decade from now, trying to figure out what to do with their future selves and how to achieve the goals they make for themselves.

I hope that if Cooper decides to dedicate another year of his life to a book project, he goes the observer route instead of the narrator route. It appeals to me so much more, and it gives me a documentary fix. Mmm, I love the documentaries.


  1. The King of Kong is the awesomest of all awesome documentaries (I'm a junkie too). And I'm pretty sure that the Real Live Billy Mitchell posted a comment on my blog when I wrote about it. Just a row of winking smiles. But twice to make sure that the message got through. Which is totally like him. I think I'm in love.

    I'll put the high school one of my list but it will have to wait. I've read more non-fiction this year then I ever have before (Three. Three non-fiction books! I don't know who I am anymore.) and I'm kind of desperate for imaginary people again.

  2. That's funny that you have a documentary fixation! I'm one of those who almost never chooses to watch or read one on purpose. Sometimes I think I did too much studying in college and it's ruined me for anything remotely related to research today! But, I have to admit that when one accidentally crosses my path, I am completely engrossed.

  3. Next time our families get together, we should sit down and discuss how/whether you determine the bias of the director or how completely the subject is covered. Perhaps I'm interested in that since I tend to borrow documentaries from the Library with a known left bent.

    I remember turning on the local PBS station and finding documentaries on the civil rights protests of the '60. I found it fascinating. I wish I would know when these kinds of great documentaries are coming on. That last time I remember knowing what was on PBS during prime time was The Mormons documentary last year. BTW, I highly recommend the miniseries Jazz: a Film by Ken Burns.

    L has been borrowing books on CD for my commute. She borrowed 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed American. I understand a 10-part series was created for PBS and would love to see it (maybe after graduate school is finished).